by Andy Fitch
After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers.
This present talk focuses on Michael Heller’s This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010. Heller has published over twenty volumes of poetry, essays, memoir, and fiction, the latest being Dianoia, a new collection of poems published this year. Among his many awards and honors are the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities Poet/Scholar Award, and recognition from the Fund for Poetry.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with a lived history of how This Constellation Is A Name came into being? Had you long planned or hoped for this type of full-scale collected volume spanning more than four decades? Did it emerge as a Nightboat-driven initiative? Who made the selections that did occur, and did this happen with any overall project plan in place? I, for instance, would have loved to see the Beckmann Variations prose sections included, but I also consider this a lovely, quite generous volume, with its spacious design presumably making some cuts necessary.
Michael Heller: The history of the volume is a bit murky in my mind, but as I remember it, blame for the book must be shared between me and Stephen Motika. Stephen, as you know, works at Poets House, and there was a period in 2010 and 2011 when I was there quite a lot, giving a seminar on modern poetry, coming to meetings and events. I had published Eschaton in 2009, the Beckmann book in 2010, and I had a fair amount of work published in magazines and online that had not yet been collected in book form, including about 20 pages of my Segalen workings, and, despite my general carelessness in thinking about my “career” and my age, I think it was Stephen who said something like “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a big book, your collected, come out around your 75th birthday?” Which, of course, is exactly what happened. I gathered all the work of my previously published volumes and the new work into a collected poems. The result was a beautiful book, which I feel honors my work and, I hope, honors Nightboat. And naturally, I have the usual ambivalence about publishing a collected—it’s at once very satisfying to feel the book’s heft, its weight of completed ambition, but also, it has that old “intimation of mortality” aspect as well. Indeed, a few times when inscribing a copy for someone, I’ve written “This book is a tome, but it is not a tomb.” Luckily, I’ve had a bit of a productive run since then, and Nightboat is going to publish my new collection, Dianoia, this year.
AF: This Constellation’s attentions to multiple temporalities intrigued me. As the endnotes, let’s say, explained the origins of the phrase “yellow submarine,” I wondered precisely whom/when this book is for. I also noted that it privileges biographical over bibliographical chronology (with A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off, written early, yet published several decades later, still presented first), even as the ruminative return to certain elegiac preoccupations diverts from any progressive timeline—pushing eschatological examinations towards new formal possibilities as much as towards any personal or historical resolution. So could you discuss the types of internalized temporalities you see This Constellation Is A Name now offering? If, as the poem “East Hampton Meditations” suggests, we often seek, through writing, to bind ourselves to the dead even as we reach towards those to come in the future, how does this book aim to combine those projects?
MH: Your phrase “multiple temporalities” intrigues me as well, and I place it in tandem with your linking to the possible raisons of an audience. To the extent that I have anything resembling a project, it is not one of specifically defining epochs, but of intervening in the discourses that have lulled or submerged us in regulated time, that have captured our mind within their logic, their cultural, economic and emotional envelopes. As you may sense from any number of poems in the book, or from a lot of my critical prose, I’m an acolyte of Benjamin, a student of, as a recent essay of mine seeks to make clear, a “now-time” poetics that hopes to interrupt time and history, and to redeem our current moment for new directions and possibilities. So if by “temporalities” one means specific segments of time, with their particular characteristics, I’d have to say that my sense has always been that poetry at its best is a matter of interference, including disruptions of those segments (this is why I have little interest in movements and groups that seem to or claim to have figured out what is necessary for any particular zeitgeist). The most profound representations of a culture or milieu are often embedded in work that critiques those eras. In “Notes on Counter-Memory,” the guiding thoughts for my memoir Living Root, I find myself enthralled by the sense that the most genuine expression of a religion is found in its heretics (in addition to Benjamin, the “patron saint” of this work, I draw on Ernst Bloch, on Gottfried Arnold and Joachim of Fiore—the last believing that autobiography consists of a “theology of crisis”). Elsewhere, I’ve called such expressions “counter continuities,” because they must not only disrupt—that seems all too easy for an artist or poet—but must offer a coherent challenge at many points to an existing state of affairs. In this sense, they are never solely about “art” or the practices of art.
That’s why your mention of “internalized temporalities” suggests that externalized ones (are we thinking Pound, or certain late-twentieth century poetic movements that want to flash-freeze certain periods?) are perhaps more “objective,” that if one just expunged the self out of the conception, we’d be in truth and light? “East Hampton Meditations,” with its last section’s concerns for “memory” and “traceries” expresses the interrelationship of these two themes in terms of errancy (of “having lost your way”), which, if one thinks hard on it, is also the condition of our freedom. And which is its redemptive power, “not for now / but to remind one / of the dead // or of those yet to come.” The thought here is an echo of the last prose entry in my Living Root:
He could not meditate on death, which he did not know. He could think about illness (or dying?), about the decay before one’s eyes which is visible and which can be imagined through one’s own fevers and flus, through one’s injuries and hurts.
He understood his parent’s deaths as at least a kind of closure while all other lessons about “death” invoked only false nostalgia, sentimentality, and guilt. He understood that the only logical response to a closure was to evaluate what had come before. The “value” of a death, of a closure, can only be an utterance of sorts.
AF: You mentioned a spiritual striving beyond solely artistic concerns, but an inclination towards ekphrasis does remain one constant across this collection’s manifold formal, intellectual, emotional explorations. And you have spoken eloquently, both in your own voice and in ventriloquistic engagements with figures such as Max Beckmann, about how the most meaningful ekphrastic work departs from trying to capture or affix nature or art, from trying to settle into descriptive linguistic rendering, from speaking in words alone for the mute and inarticulate. So I’d love to hear you discuss or parse your engagement with ekphrastic and mimetic tendencies. I think of your preferred typed of ekphrasis as an emulative rather than a descriptive mimesis—an effort, as in certain forms of Chinese painting, to become the rustling leaves, rather than to record this phenomenon. Along such lines, I admire not only your empathic/ekphrastic engagements with a diverse range of artists (Piet Mondrian, John Coltrane, Rachel Blau DuPlessis), but also your knack for constructing a syntactical rhythm that operates like a heartbeat, like the subaqueous pacing of coral’s growth, like a window’s sunlight “without thought,” like an egret or heron, like a creek. Of course, as This Constellation Is A Name notes, poets long have picked up on Homer’s efforts to mimic, through poetic pacing, waves breaking off Hellas. But what do you consider your distinctive contribution or attraction to questions of how ekphrasis, mimesis, radical empathy might play out in a contemporary poetics? Or if we return to the early lines “the human scales the world, the / successive / reminiscences of a thing’s / properties,” what role have your longterm ekphrastic engagements played in refining your sense, your phenomenology perhaps, of embodied human consciousness, of interrelationality, of formal arrangements prioritizing the fragment and/or the ongoing, asymptotic, ever-incomplete utterance? What in lived experience and/or adjacent realms of knowledge does your poetics most emulate?
MH: That is one extensive question. If its sentences were not in the interrogative mode, I’d say that it pretty well (and generously so) captures manifold aspects of my writing, of my concerns. My “engagement” with particular artworks—not only visual ones, but literary ones as well as music and opera—is complicated. As I say in the interview in The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory, artworks are “nexes of intelligence and experience . . . arenas, perceptual tests and challenges, sometimes acts of possession in the psychic and spiritual sense, at once disturbing and pleasurable.” I have no program for my encounters. Rather, over the years of wandering around galleries or concert halls, or looking in books, certain works have seemed so powerful and seductive that I’ve wanted to respond, to understand my responses, and to see where these lead. In the spirit of Picasso’s “a picture is a hoard of destructions” (Wallace Stevens cites this remark in The Necessary Angel, also insisting that “a poem is a horde of destructions”), it is this disturbance that I seek to articulate, something which lies neither purely in the artwork nor in the culture in which it is placed, but in the intellectual and emotional energy that links the two. How to express that, which seems the territory of poetry and art as opposed to the discourses?
As a poet, I’ve wanted to submit my worldview to destruction (something perhaps linked to my studying Buddhist thought and its practice, as I would call it, of a kind of self-destruct). One senses immediately before certain works: they are not pleasant, not confirming; they move and instruct as teachers and parents often do, disabusing as well as instructing. What I want my work to embody is this double energy of construction and deconstruction. Powerful works don’t leave one in the desert, in nullity. But can a poetics really “emulate?” Is that a legitimate question to ask a poet who has said from the start that his entire “career” constitutes a series of blunders and accidents?
AF: Well, the pursuit of a blundering, accidental career itself seems to offer one way of emulating how existence as a whole plays out. And here I wonder if tracking your longstanding engagement with a variety of spiritual, philosophical and scientific worldviews might help. A pre-Socratic (later, of course, Keatsian, Emersonian) emphasis upon “hidden harmonies” arrives early in this book, with corresponding formulations of insight’s lightning flash: tracing, let’s say, Platonic models of internal and external oblivion (“One dark outlined against a dark”); tracing Walter Benjamin’s conception of a text’s occasional illuminating bolt followed by its “‘thunder rolling / long afterwards.’” And your scientific/engineering training adds autobiographical context for this collection’s atomistic depictions of photons, of perception, of Robert Delaunay’s attempts to reach “‘sources of emotion / beyond the limits of all subject matter.’” Could you talk more about formative poetic, metaphysical, anti-metaphysical influences on your work, either figures or ideas or approaches?
MH: For me, the vocabulary of science is essentially metaphoric. The physical world, its objects and weathers, comes to us without any names or labels. We’ve constructed the entire discourse and, from my perspective, embedded our longing, our hopes and desires in that labeling—an impulse that co-arises I would imagine with the dawning of literacy and orality. The pre-Socratics, whom I read closely when I thought I might get a graduate degree in philosophy, were highly influential, Heraclitus in particular, whose fragments form a tone poem of the highest order. It’s important to remember his divine Logos comes to us on top of centuries of animistic and shamanistic activity, with all their hope for connection, their fear of disconnection, fear of the sun going out, of harvests lost, with all their hope, loss, salvation. I think the point for me is that language alone can never quite account for language, that we are always in relation to both words and experience/existence in its broadest terms. My readings and my influences, with few exceptions, are not systematic. I’m much more of a magpie reader. The notes in the back of This Constellation Is A Name, well, they constitute a constellation of sources I’ve drawn on, to which one could add the usual suspects, most importantly what I have taken away from readings and rereadings of Oppen and Benjamin, from the work of phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty, on through Buddhist texts dealing with Mahamudra and dialectics, to all sorts of cultural and historical readings, anything that contains or gives me the mysterious frisson of a human working him/herself out via language. My “career” is essentially one of continually going on in this direction.
To give you some early instances: the Delaunay quote comes from “4:21 PM On Saint George’s Clock: Film” in my earliest full collection, Accidental Center. It is one of a number of poems in which my background in the sciences plays a significant part, not merely in this poem’s deployment of technical diction, but in its constant recourse to something like the inexpressible, as in the ending: “each frame isolate as our lives are // but a lonely gesture to the next.” Any number of other poems, such as “Telescope Suite,” “Incontinence” (about our response to the space program), all lead to justifying (if that is the right word) the vision in the book’s last lines, from “Birds At The Alcazaba”: “for the otherness is beautiful / and terror and delight / in the same moment flood the heart.” This habit of speculation and observing persists. It has almost nothing to do with audience or fashion. And whatever has evolved in my work orbits around the understandings and consolations—curious word, but it describes the feelings of resolve and momentary completion—I achieved for myself in that first book.
AF: Moving outwards then, across This Constellation’s full scope, and still at a relatively abstract level, could we also try to trace an ever-evolving, often cosmic conception of love—compared, early on, to “the cold light / Touching stone / Across the distance,” and subsequently refracted throughout this collected text, which so often suggests that “only love is at the end of it”?
MH: That conception, as you describe it, is, in the most profound sense, not one I feel comfortable addressing—a fear that anything I might say would only reduce what has led to a resolution that can only come about via poetry. It seems to me that, aside from the conventional uses of the word “love,” you are pointing to a place in my work where the term is all that’s left of what I am able to say, as though a process of awarenesses and realizations led ultimately to the brink of speechlessness. Oppen talks of an ennobling clarity, and it seems to me tactful, even necessary, not to qualify or overdefine such endpoints, such completions made possible by poetry.
AF: Perhaps then we could address the redemptive force or at least the respite provided by erotic and sexual experience, as much as by abstracted conceptions of love. Early on, sex gets tied to restorative forms of silence, darkness, chiaroscuro, to corporeal simplicity amid embodied engagement with others and with the world (if an example helps to clarify: “half-light, half-dark arcings / of pleasure and silence— // so much done together / natural, cloven / yet joined // audacious desire / have you writhe under me / come so sweetly”). Lyric often has valued the restorative power of the erotic or of nature (or nature’s nearest equivalent, as in “Adulation’s” Cheeveresque reappraisal of suburban comforts, alongside a more cynical friend’s snide remarks), and you artfully pick up on such traditions. But then later this collection references “the galaxy seemingly drained of that covenant.” Or your Baudelairean “Like Prose Bled Through A City” constantly pivots from aesthetic serenity to individual human suffering. Here no such poetic solace seems conclusively serviceable. So we could talk about the legacy of erotic, lyric, pastoral tropes offering redemptive tonalities throughout your books. We could also or instead discuss what seemed to me like the emergence of more wary or pessimistic tonalities accruing in later pieces. I remember, from an interview with Jon Curley, you stating that your work seeks to bridge a distance “between what has already been said or written and what a constantly changing world would require.” What has and what does your world require of the erotic?
MH: I quarrel with your use of the word “respite,” as if some version of the erotic amounted to a longeur. The way you use “redemptive” also is tinged with a kind of use-value, suggesting the efforts of self-appointed salvationists. I guess what I’m asking is: can we talk of requiring something from the erotic? Isn’t it quite the other way, that the erotic seems to exert demands on us—more broadly, that on every level, the world is a seductive place eliciting our intimacy, our indwelling, our understanding? To go back to your earlier question, isn’t this the “cosmic” dimension of the erotic, its all-pervasive energy? I’m speaking of something larger than sexual attraction, though our personal intimacies can almost be seen as metonymies of other relatedness. The religious responses to such energies range across the whole spectrum of behavior, from the ascetic’s attempt to shut out the world, to unreflective embracing or dancing with this phenomena. As I’ve often said, the world beats on the poet. I’ll add for clarity that the erotics of the world beat on the poet. The sound of that drumming, as it is shaped in language by one’s psyche and physiology, is his or her poetry. Registering those beats, and how to live with those registrations, is what I am about, what drives my seeking and my receptivity to the currents flowing around me.
And naturally, part of that registration is sorting out the signals and so on that one receives, and trying to express one’s sense of them. I think, in this regard, I’d characterize “Adulation” not as Cheeveresque, but as a tongue-in-cheek take on the simultaneous desire for and disparagement of the gods of celebrity, of patronage—the seductions. The narrator’s poet-friend exclaims, right at the start of the poem, that “adulation is the structure of the world,” and what ensues is a dialectic of hopes and fears (and revulsions) attendant on the tropes of wanting and getting adulation.
If fame is a new religious marker, one of the casualties is the old animism, especially in its updated literary version as nature poem, or within the pastoral poem tradition. This is the old “covenant” of spiritual meaning I’m referring to, which has been drained from the universe (“the galaxy” in that poem).
AF: In terms of such a loss, an elegiac trajectory of course starts to solidify across this book’s arc, shifting the center of gravity away from youthful observations and erotic attractions, to catalyzing concerns for disappeared and disappearing perceptions, individuals, cultures, languages, ecosystems. Most specifically, reflections on your parents’ deaths, on the destruction of Eastern European Jewish communities, on September 11th and its aftermath, resound across much of this book’s second half. By the time you publish Knowledge, your poems implore their readers, their author, themselves not to let meaning nor self-definition perish. And, simultaneously, your poems continue to evolve away from a more elliptical template, towards something more like narrative. “Through The Binoculars” basically asks how one becomes elegiac: “How does one lose the sense / Of the hymnic and must sing only of what is past.” Could you begin to answer that question in terms both of your autobiographical and poetic development, addressing your ongoing dialogues with your parents, with certain literary figures (Benjamin, Baudelaire, Freud, Celan), with certain cityscapes?
MH: I don’t plan a trajectory a priori. Rather, I feel like I’m investigating particular situations. I’m looking for a path, sometimes one that seeks to find its way back from loss that can properly be called elegiac, such as in the poems dealing with the deaths of my parents or other figures that are important to me. I don’t conceptualize ahead of time. Thus what begins in elegiac form (as in “Through The Binoculars,” where I tried to come to terms with the death of my father) turns out, in its last sections, to be something of a praise poem: “Beautiful the world the dead have left us to see / Beautiful the shell, thin and delicate in its own right, Yet beautiful as a beautiful woman.” It’s as though the poet here turns the corner on grief by transmuting his loss. I can’t account for how I got there—all I can think of is something like what Zukofsky says of Shakespeare, that he had an “inexpressible trust of expression.” I seem to do that kind of trusting.
As to the figures you mentioned (Baudelaire, Celan, etcetera), I’ve said elsewhere that I consider my poetry to be a relational act, that my arena is the in-between, that my encounters with the dead are teaching situations. I don’t want to imitate them but I would hopelessly hope to approach their depths of intensity, comprehension and lyric beauty. The only way I can go at it is by reading them and by learning what I can about how I use language.
AF: Since you yourself have emphasized, in this book and elsewhere, your departure from an earlier, more self-consciously “experimental style,” could you discuss in detail what points of continuity and differentiation you detect between earlier and later parts of This Constellation Is a Name? For me at least, early desires to let attention wander, slip (thereby affirming being: “Stopping to let the attentions wander. An absurd elusive sense of self all the more alive because what seemed to slip away was just that attention, the holding of which was proof, at least in words, of the term ‘alive’”), don’t seem so far removed from statements, significantly later, that you have lived long enough to know you love fragment-like “figments,” (“thigh turns and orchid boats peeping shyly”). And again, your subsequent depiction of “Life as pointillist” seems a logical step. So I guess I wonder if you have refined early tendencies, more than you have abandoned them. Or what, specifically, has disappeared since the early work? Or for a potentially different microcosmic consideration of your evolving formal process, could you discuss your rewriting and subsequent re-rewriting of Shelley in “Without Ozymandias” and “Stanzas Without Ozymandias”? How especially does this latter poem, with its less fragmentary syntax, serve to point readers away from a symbolic realm, toward more “spiritual thought and its ramifications”?
MH: In This Constellation Is A Name (which is nearly 600 pages in length), that very self-conscious phase of experimentation, mostly occurring in the mid-’60s, is confined to the first 25 pages. It was a time when I was obsessively concerned with what a poem ought to be, and my subsequent disillusion with that period stemmed not from the work, which was very well received (published, anthologized, praised), but from the goal I had set for myself, which seemed narrow, narcissistic and of little use-value to anyone. I stopped writing, though I continued to read as deeply as I could in poetry and everything else. Then I met Oppen, read his work and corresponded with him, and began to see a way for myself, not in imitation but in seeking for truth and clarity. My little machines made of words could be valuable to me—audience was never a big consideration in my thinking—if they were engines of such seeking. Once I crossed what seems now to have been a psychological and even ethical barrier, I began writing again, and could see my earlier writing in a better light. There is in my files much more work from that early period, and now that I’ve warmed to it again, I may yet publish a book-length collection of those poems.
AF: I also sense many potential questions regarding the form of Stevensian (extended, lightly serialized) meditation that serves you so well across these volumes. But, given what we already have discussed, could you offer further elaboration, from the Beckmann Variations prose, on how a poetics, how your poetics, might engage “the inexpressible” less by capturing and confining it than by immersing oneself in successive streams of words and works? Again, how does this trajectory within one multi-part serial poem outline This Constellation Is a Name’s more broadly constellated prospects for polyphonic and perhaps perpetual communication?
MH: Here I’ll repeat Zukofsky’s “inexpressible trust in expression.” This is about as far as I need to go for a “poetics.” All else is theme and variation on what any particular nexus of subject, sound, influence brings up. My interest in using prose, in sensing the poetics of prose, goes back to my readings of Baudelaire, to the figurations and frissons I find across all sorts of writing, to my study of the Japanese poetic diary. But that is like describing a tool chest, because ultimately what matters most is where the activity of writing, of getting down with the material at hand may lead one. My memoir Living Root, for example, led me into a kind of Midrashic structure: prose, poetry, commentary on the poems, what I not so jokingly call “Jewish haibun.” What the form—or multiplicities of form—seemed to enable was discussions of personal history, quarrels with tradition, poetics. And though This Constellation Is A Name is mostly poetry, I feel it inhabits similar discursive/anti-discursive space. I’m of the school of Valéry, who said he didn’t finish a poem but finally abandoned it.
AF: Amid the many intertextual excursions, the elegies and dedications, a sense of aloneness, of isolation, also appears. Sometimes isolation extends an infantile sense of helplessness. Sometimes this book seeks to find within feelings of emptiness a feeling of freedom. Sometimes this sense of isolation gets placed under the sign of death and each individual’s unique engagement with death. Sometimes personal apocalypse eventually merges with communal apocalypse—as Eschaton, say, closes on the September 11th attacks. Given This Constellation Is a Name’s celebration both of isolation/silence and of engagement/conversation, how would you characterize the place here of the solitary, the singular? Do such solitary sensations, for instance, provide their own form of shared experience?
MH: We’re speaking here about solitude, and you’ll recall Rilke’s formulation of love as “two solitudes saluting each other.” Our condition, our solitariness, seems so fundamental, and it is—nothing original here—the essential impetus to communicate, to write poetry. Which is why I have referred to poetry as a relational act, a bridging that begins in recognition of apartness. A physics and metaphysics of poetry stem from and return to that condition. So yes, it is a “shared” experience, an unavoidably shared one. It began on day one of civilization, maybe earlier.
AF: Following from those last topics, I’d again like to pick up one of this book’s own lines of inquiry: must a poem always “witness something”; can it ever “simply come to take its place / Beside these lovely things”? And if you would rather not address such questions so directly, does it at least make sense to track, as this collection’s elegies begin to accumulate, an emergent emphasis upon individual testimony, individual recollection, as in the deathbed “St. Francis Hospital” scene of “Miami Waters,” with its conjecture that “Perhaps the world / which does not cohere in the world, / coheres in one self, in one rememberer”? Or, even more broadly: as you have lived and written across the twentieth-century’s second half and beyond, how has your estimation of individual testimony changed?
MH: That phrase “come to take its place / Beside these lovely things,” which comes from my sequence on Paris, “Fifty-Three Rue Notre-Dame De Nazareth,” could lead us back to your previous question on solitariness. The passage is ironic/semi-confessional in the sense that the poem’s narrator attempts to locate himself between some position of pure aesthetics and that need to witness (hence communicate across the solitude to another). It’s an attempt to work out our poetic legacy, beginning with the admission that the narrator is “another legatee of Mallarmé”:
I have strained against the tongue
Until the word displaced
The world’s foreign body.
Have played with the exclusionary pun . . .
And yet, and yet
Those “yets” constitute a self-demurral as to where one is going. The passage continues with a catalog of pleasurable objects, foods, sights for the eye, etcetera, before it gets to that question of taking place or witnessing. I think what I’ve tried to do in that passage and in the other sections of the poem (because as you know it moves from the bourgeois pleasures of daily life, its “tourism,” to contemplating clashes of politics, cultures and the modern horrors of our times) is to stage as powerfully as I could the deepest questions of writing poetry, as did Baudelaire and Mallarmé, who are the poem’s agons. Which is why the concept of chance and the depiction of urban horror thread through and populate the main sections of the poem. I will say that if one is looking for my ars poetica, my feeling of the relationship between art and life, it probably can be found in reading that poem.
As an answer to your question about “individual testimony,” no, it hasn’t changed, but deepened. The more serious question might be: is there any other kind witnessing? In my forthcoming book of poems, Dianoia, I confess to “falling in with the spirit of the ‘I,’ the ‘I’ that lost credibility.”
AF: On this level of the individual “I,” I sensed a slight increase in oppositional tones (at least addressing the literary world) in This Constellation’s later stances “for love and against concept,” dreading a world of “only irony,” mocking “that tepid faculty-room tea” and corresponding “idea / of an impotence authored by others.” Could you discuss these emergent tones, again perhaps in terms of your own lived experience with and through poetry?
MH: These observations (maybe you want to call them quips) arise naturally from the subjects I’m dealing with. But perhaps my inner crank is also kicking in. I subscribe to Oppen’s resistance to “Art,” a realm of pseudo-professionalism, career-hunting and academic self-loathing which has now become all-pervasive—with my question in “Ordinariness Of The Soul” being: “for whom ought / the muse to be real?” Part of the via negativa of any serious poem is the thread through, as Geoffrey Hill calls it, the climate of contexture, the “enemy’s country” of received opinion, movements and groupthink. Yeah, I am a crank.
AF: To close, this book’s concluding “Tibet” sequence returns us to many preceding concerns. Echoing, for me, Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs, your project’s pursuit of “non-human Tibet” (as known not from outside, but from within) returns us to the empathic/ekphrastic/mimetic prowess of your poetics. Efforts here to channel the high-altitude, incantatory, exclamatory ecstasies of your own private Tibet recall both Shelley’s Mount Blanc and This Constellation Is a Name’s ongoing explorations of the Colorado landscape. So could you position this sequence as looking both backwards and forwards across your corpus? We could discuss more specifically the potential you found in Victor Segalen’s obscured, proto-Orientalist text “Essay on Exoticism.” We could discuss how this paean to a timeless, projected Tibet squares with realities from your own lived history and from that nation’s, or how/why it elides doing so. But what, for you, for me, makes “Tibet” such a fitting conclusion to this collection?
MH: Those are very kind words, identifications and comparisons in your question. Let me say that the “Tibet” project is by no means over. My new book Dianoia has another six numbers of the sequence, and there will be more to come. But to the broader aspect of your inquiry, Segalen was both a pioneer and supreme strategist of “Otherness” (writing in French, of course, creating or doubling the otherness for me, a writer in English). He was an exemplary strategist, because the creation and deployment of “a language that never originally existed,” as Haun Sussy says of Segalen’s Steles (this is a statement equally true for Segalen’s Thibet series, and I hope for my own “made-up” transpositional efforts), enables an approach to the exotic or Other that simultaneously distances and yet honors our fascination. And isn’t poetry—when we call upon it to do what we, at the deepest level of ourselves, wish for poetry to do—giving us the world in a “language that never originally existed,” one freed from the entrappings and discourses of previous thought? So yes, the “Tibet Sequence” is part of my personal Archimedean lever to move my sense of the world (in all of its comprehensiveness, as I understand it) that one iota or degree that will give us a momentary grasp again. In one new section of the sequence I call this “the bright shard beyond any tangent of being,” something beyond our acquisitive psyches, beyond our possessiveness, a revealment that simultaneously restores the world and ourselves in it. Revealment and opening up is what I want my poetry to do for me, and maybe it will do that for others.